We'd Better Speak Up For Libraries

Some friends in a community not too far from mine told me the story of a candidate for local political office a couple of years ago who said, at a candidate forum, “I think people who use the library ought to pay for it.  I never go in there.”  This candidate got elected, along with some others of like mind, and sure enough, when it came time to pass a budget, library money was drastically slashed.

The impact was immediate and drastic.  The library had to lay off workers and cut operating hours.  When folks who needed the library’s resources showed up, they often found the doors closed, or no staff member available to help and answer questions.

Looking for a job to support your family?  Good luck being able to use a library computer to look up online job listings.  A student working on a term paper that requires current reference material?  Good luck getting access in the evening or on a weekend.  Looking for that new book by your favorite author?  Sorry, the library doesn’t have money to buy it.   

The impression I got from my friends is that the frustration level is high, and that a grassroots effort is underway to get library funds restored.  I hope they’re successful.  Like me, they share the view that a library is an essential community service, just like police and fire protection, the health department, road maintenance, garbage pickup, etc.  I think of a library as a vital part of the school system, which in its broadest term includes adults as well as young folks.

I would not be a writer if it were not for the influence of the library in my hometown as I was growing up.  It was a modest operation, a single room tucked between the fire station and the city clerk’s office, staffed by a dear woman named Miss Glennie.  She was not a trained librarian in the modern sense, but she knew every book in the place, and she was an ardent advocate of reading.  She challenged me by pushing good literature on me, had me reading Faulkner and Hemingway when I was in junior high.  Those books not only entertained me, they taught me what good writing looked like.  Those books, and Miss Glennie, helped shape the writer I would become.

Libraries have changed a lot since my youth, when they were mostly places where you put books on shelves and patrons came in and checked them out.  They’re now firmly in the grasp of the digital age, and much of what they hold is accessed through a keyboard, a collection of knowledge -- much of it sight and sound -- that has to be updated at lightning speed.  But in the broadest sense, the role of the library hasn’t changed.  It’s a repository of the community’s wisdom, there for every soul in the community to use.

No community service exists unless the people in the community insist on it, work for it, and support decision-makers who share their views.  I don’t think we’re inclined to let crime run unchecked, houses burn down, garbage pile up at the curb, or ceilings fall in at the schoolhouse.  The question is, do we also think knowledge and wisdom are important?  If we do, we’ll back our libraries to the hilt. 

Guest Blog: A Good Day For The Book

My guest blogger today is Stephen Doster, author of a fine new novel, Jesus Tree.
 

      Around Nashville you occasionally see a “Save The Book” bumper sticker, courtesy of Parnassus Books, a local bookseller started by Karen Hayes and Ann Patchett after a major independent bookseller folded.  The phrase, “Save The book,” stirs up a lot of connotations.  In the 140-character world of Twitter and text-speak, some people fret for the future of the written word.  Cell phone novels, written entirely as text messages, began in Japan in 2003 and spread to other countries at a rate that makes Ebola blush (LOL).  E-readers and e-books threaten to make paperbacks and hardcovers a thing of the past.  So, what about the book as we know it?  Will it survive?  Will we be a literate or a semi-literate society?

      I don’t know the answer to that.  But I do know that October 11, 2014 was a good day for “the book.”  In fact, it was a good day for a lot of books.  On that day I attended another author panel session at the Southern Festival of Books, an annual three-day love fest for authors, publishers, and most importantly, readers, not e-readers but the actual flesh-and-blood variety.  The festival encompasses three large edifices – the main library, the state capitol, and the legislative building.  There are numerous author sessions occurring every hour of the festival for three days. 

      Saturday, October 11th was also the day #2 ranked Auburn Tigers played #3 ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs in college football – in the South, where Nashville happens to be located.  It was a wet, overcast day, and I was going to an end-of-the day, closing session.  But I had been to this festival before on a workday Friday, on an SEC football Saturday, and on an NFL (Titans in town) Sunday, and there had always been a good turnout for “the book.”  But was that still the case?  After all, e-books had another year to undermine “the book” since the 2013 festival. 

      The room I was going to was on the third floor of Nashville’s impressive marble and stone library.  The 3:00 o’clock session was ending (packed room – a good sign!), and people were gathering outside the room for the last panel.

      This particular session was titled, “The Evolution of the Southern Short Story,” featuring authors Suzzane Hudson, David Madden, and H. William (Bill) Rice.  Before the session began, Belmont University Professor Devon Boan, the moderator, was discussing Bill’s book in-depth.  “It’s nice when a moderator has actually read the book!” the author said.  Welcome to the Southern Festival of Books. 

      During the session, the authors read passages from their books.  Madden acted his out in a one-man play.  Afterward, the audience members peppered them with questions.  The discussion ranged from the evolution of short stories, or lack thereof, to post-humanism in Southern literature.  Wow.  Really?  Auburn is playing Mississippi State, and we’re talking post-humanism?  Full disclosure:  I didn’t follow all of that segment of the discussion, but the fact it was going down in the South, on an SEC football Saturday, was encouraging.

      But it gets better.  After this session, I followed Devon and the authors to Legislative Plaza where the author signing area is located.  I stopped to buy books and then made my way up the steps to the author tables in the still overcast and dreary afternoon with evening closing in.  The three authors were at the same table signing books.  Suzanne and Bill autographed their copies for me, then I got in David’s line.  David knows a lot of people.  A big guy was standing next to him talking to Devon and David as he signed books.  When I got closer, the big guy reached out his hand and said, “Hi.  I’m Pat Conroy.  Nice to meet you.”
      Pat Conroy was the keynote for the book festival and had been signing books for two hours before we got there.  And there he was, still talking to authors and fans, and chatting with people like me, like we’re family.  Then he said something I’ve always thought when attending this festival but never expressed.  He looked out over the tables with authors from other sessions and the lines of people waiting to have their books signed.  He spread his arms, taking it all in, and he said three words.  “Isn’t this great?”
      Yes, Pat Conroy, this is great.  On a wet, overcast, SEC football Saturday, at day’s end, people still discuss books (post-humanism and all), they still buy books, and they still line up to have their favorite authors sign those books. 
    A good day for the book?  It was a great day for the book.

An Abiding Sense of History

DSC00124.JPG

It was a beautiful and memorable October 7th atop Kings Mountain.  Several hundred gathered to observe the 234th anniversary of the battle that turned the tide of the Revolutionary War and set in motion the chain of events that led to America’s independence from Britain.

It was a colorful occasion – men and women dressed in period costumes, members of the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution and other organizations dedicated to preserving the history and legacy of this important piece of Americana.  They laid wreaths at the base of the monument that pays tribute to the Patriots who fought, including the 28 who died.

The gathering included a handful of hardy men who had spent two weeks traveling to Kings Mountain from Eastern Tennessee, re-creating the march of the “Overmountain Men” who formed the backbone of the Patriot force at the battle.  Those originals traveled more than 300 miles over rugged terrain, through brutal weather, to find and defeat British Major Patrick Ferguson and his force on that low ridge near the border of the two Carolinas.  The modern-day group have been making this journey for 40 years, stopping along the way to tell anyone who can listen the story of those 1780 frontiersmen.

I’m one who thinks history is vital – that we have to know where we came from, and how we got where we are now, to have any idea how to proceed into the future.  When I write a novel, I need to know my characters’ backstory – the how and why of their journey to the “now.”  I want my readers to understand the baggage they tote along with them, the joys and agonies of their lives that make them who they are and give a glimpse into how they might deal with their present dilemmas.

So, we all fit into a history – both personal and societal.  And having a sense of that is crucial to understanding who we are, as individuals and as a people.

I love the stories of history.  In the research that went into writing my new play, “Liberty Mountain,” I read volumes about the settling of the Carolinas, the lives of the families who came to the southern colonies from Europe to make a fresh start, to work hard and enjoy the fruits of their labor, to worship as they pleased.  It’s the ordinary folks I’m most interested in, and in crafting the story of Kings Mountain, I came to know these ordinary folks – men, women and children – and especially the volunteer citizen militiamen who fought the battle on both sides.  They had an intensely personal stake in the outcome, and when it was over, they went back to being farmers and millers and shopkeepers.  But they were profoundly changed by the experience, and so was the country.  The difference was one word: liberty.

At the wreath-laying ceremony on top of the mountain a few days ago, I was heartened to see a large group of high school students.  Their presence told me that folks at their school believe that history is important.  I trust that the experience made a lasting impression on the young folks, because we depend on them to carry our history and its lessons forward.  We put it in their hands, and trust they will continue to tell the stories of who we are and how we came to be Americans.  If they understand that, it will help them shape their future.

I hope my play, “Liberty Mountain,” will play a small part in perpetuating the unique piece of history we call Kings Mountain.  The production will continue in the future, with performances every summer.  I hope folks, especially young folks, will come from across the nation – even the world – to see and hear this inspiring story of courage and fortitude. 

On The Air With Swap Shops and Obituaries

I took a trip to my past a few days ago, and it’s worth telling about.  I was interviewed at the studios of a radio station in Cherryville, North Carolina about the upcoming premier of my new play, “Liberty Mountain,” and it was like going home.

I began my long journey as a communicator in junior high school at the weekly newspaper in my Alabama hometown – first working in the print shop, then learning to report and write.  But when a fellow started a radio station in Elba, I was intrigued.  There was a minister who, as a part-time job, did local news for the station, and he invited me to contribute stories – not just write them, but deliver them on the air.  So a couple of mornings a week, before school, I would go to his pastor’s study where he had a microphone set up, and I would present my stuff.  Wow!  My family and friends could hear me on the radio.  Instant celebrity.  I acquired a new girlfriend.

Then the station manager offered me a job as a disk jockey – working after school, weekends, and summer vacation.  From pastor’s study to studio, operating the control board, reading the news and commercials, and playing records, an inordinate number of which I dedicated to my new girlfriend.  We played “Top 4O” music – Ray Charles, the Platters, Johnny Cash, cool stuff.  My air name was “The Boogie Man.”

I parlayed that experience at WELB (“the mighty 1350) into a college education, disc jockeying my way through the University of Alabama at stations in Tuscaloosa while I got a communications degree.  And from there I went on to a thirty-year career in television news at stations in Montgomery and Charlotte.

But I never lost my affection and admiration for hometown radio, and as I sat in that studio in Cherryville, it all came back.  Just before we went on the air for the interview, they were doing the “Swap Shop,” a staple of hometown radio.  Want to buy or sell an item?  Send in a post card or call on the phone and get on the air.  Connect with your friends and neighbors, one of whom may be on the lookout for that “Sly and the Family Stone” vinyl LP you have for sale or may have that two-gallon crockpot you’ve been pining for.  It’s an electronic community flea market, free for users.

And then there’s the “Obituary Column of the Air,” another time-honored hometown radio tradition.  Obits provided by the local funeral home, read somberly by an announcer, a brief chronicle of the lives of those among us recently departed, along with information on services, memorial gifts, and the like.  In a small town, you’re likely to know the folks they’re talking about.  Family, friends and neighbors.

Radio has changed a good deal since my days as a teenage deejay.  Stations – especially in sizeable markets – are owned by big conglomerates with cookie-cutter ideas about what folks ought to be listening to.  In many cases, programming is automated and the live announcer personality has been swallowed up by a computer.  But search around the AM dial, and you’ll still find echoes of that very local, very intimate radio of the past.  The best of it remains, and for a small-town kid like me, it’s the best radio there is.  It’s my roots, and I’m grateful.

Robert Inman’s novels – Home Fires Burning, Old Dogs and Children, Dairy Queen Days, Captain Saturday, and The Governor Lady – are available on Amazon Kindle, priced at $3.99.

Scotland Speaks To America

I’ve been following Scotland’s vote on independence with more than passing interest.  Like many folks who live in the Carolinas, I have Scots-Irish ancestors, folks who came to America in its very early years to build new lives, raise families, work hard, and worship as they pleased.  America is a land of immigrants, and this particular group played a significant role in making the nation we are today.

In my new play, “Liberty Mountain,” our theatre company brings to life their settling in America and how they got caught up in the colonies’ struggle for independence.  It focuses on 1780, when the British were winning the war until the decisive battle at Kings Mountain, along the border between the two Carolinas.  Had a hastily-assembled force of Patriots not defeated a larger and better-trained Loyalist contingent there, the result of the war for independence might have had a far different outcome.

So when kinsmen back in Scotland start talking about independence, it strikes home.  Their question: should they dissolve the union with Great Britain they entered more than 300 years ago?  The answer, a fairly resounding “No.”  Great Britain will remain intact, though Scotland – in the course of the campaign – was promised significantly more autonomy.  Our Scots are proud and independent people, and they will enjoy a greater ability to govern themselves as they retain their economic and cultural ties to Britain.

I read a lot about the campaign as it was going on, listened a lot to the BBC on the radio.  And a couple of things struck me that may say something to Americans, whether Scots-Irish descendants or not.

The first was the relative civility of the campaign.  There were passionate arguments on both sides – opinions staunchly held and forcefully voiced.  Those who favored independence believed that Scotland would be better off in every way, especially economically, by going it alone.  Those who urged a “no” vote feared that dis-union would bring all sorts of problems, especially economically.  Leaders of the two sides debated fiercely, as did the voters.  But with a few exceptions, the whole thing was conducted with remarkable good manners.  Perhaps the Scots realized that whatever the outcome, they had to live together, and that it would be best to do so without lingering bitterness.

Contrast that with our American campaigns of the past couple of decades.  Whether considering issues or candidates, we seem unable to avoid hurling insults at each other, indulging in character assassination, and on the whole being profoundly negative about the business.  It’s not enough that we disagree, we are bent on demonizing each other.  In the aftermath of our campaigns, the divisions linger and grow.  We become increasingly unable to agree on much of anything, and become increasingly ungovernable.  The Scots must look at us and shake their heads.

The other thing about the Scottish election that caught my fancy was the fact that – for the first time in history – 16- and 17-year-olds were eligible to vote.  At the outset, the common assumption was that a bunch of flaky, rebellious, hot-headed teenagers would vote for independence, relying more on hormones than reason.  Quite the opposite happened.  Overwhelmingly, Scottish teenagers approached the vote with sober reason.  They listened, they read, they debated among themselves.  They were informed voters.  And in the days leading up to the vote, polls showed the youth electorate inclined to vote to stay with Great Britain, perhaps concerned with their own economic futures.  Since the outcome was 55% to stay, it’s safe to say the teenagers had a significant role in the result.  Now, having conducting themselves so admirably in a campaign of issues, it will be hard to keep them away from the polls when choosing who will represent them.

It’s something we might think about in America.  Would our 16- and 17-year-olds rise to the challenge if presented with the opportunity to cast a meaningful vote in an election?  I personally think they would.  Perhaps it’s worth trying.

I’m not ready to move to Scotland.  I’m perfectly happy right where I am, in the America that my Scots-Irish ancestors fought to liberate.  It is an imperfect union, but it’s our union.  But could we look to Scotland today for some inspiration as we try to make our union better?  Absolutely.

Erik Compton and the Importance of Failure

I was listening to a sports psychologist talking on the radio the other day about failure.  It came shortly after the U.S. Open Golf Championship at Pinehurst, where a golfer named Erik Compton tied for second.  This psychologist wasn’t talking about Compton failing to win the tournament, he was using him as an example of how failure can prepare us for success.

Compton.jpg

You see, Erik Compton is on his third heart.  When he was nine years old he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy.  His heart muscle was inflamed and unable to work hard enough to do its job.  For four years, doctors tried to treat his condition with medications – steroids, to be specific.  If you’ve ever had to take massive doses of steroids, or know anyone who has, you know how they can ravage the body in their attempt to heal it.  Erik’s features became bloated and grotesque, and this at a time when kids are trying to find themselves, to fit in with the world around them.  Erik didn’t fit, and in the way children can be exquisitely mean, he was often taunted and ridiculed because of his appearance.

By the time he was twelve, it was obvious the steroids weren’t going to work, and so doctors gave him a new heart and a new lease on life.  He became a golfer, a very good one, with a college scholarship to the University of Georgia.  When he graduated, he turned professional – playing on mini-tours, then the Nationwide Tour, and even a handful of tournaments on the PGA Tour.  He won some, and could see a bright future ahead as a professional.

Then came the big setback.  His second heart began to fail, and in 2008 he had another transplant and had to start all over on the long road to physical recovery and his quest for a life on the links.  You could say that when Erik Compton finished his final round at Pinehurst earlier this year, tied with Rickie Fowler for second, he had finished the journey.  No matter that Martin Kaymer won the golf tournament by eight strokes.  Erik Compton won the life tournament.

You can say all sorts of good things about Erik Compton.  He has great talent, he works hard, he has persistence and spirit.  He has heart.  But what this sports psychologist was talking about was how Erik’s life of setbacks contributed to the golfer and person he is today.  He had to endure childhood ridicule, and what has to be one of the most difficult physical challenges I can imagine, having your heart taken from your body and replaced with another one – twice.  He confronted failure, and the threat of failure, at every turn.  So on one of golf’s biggest stages, under mind-boggling pressure, he performed with skill and grace because he had faced failure and conquered it.  No mere golf tournament could compare with what he had been through.

This psychologist says his advice to parents is to let our kids face failure honestly.  Don’t try to sugar-coat it, don’t say it doesn’t matter, don’t make excuses.  We can’t keep our kids from failing, no matter how hard we try.  The best we can do is help them recognize it, deal with it, and learn from it.  If we’re having trouble with that, we can sit down with our kids in front of a TV, find a professional golf tournament, and watch Erik Compton.  He knows how to fail, and through failing, win.

Robert Inman's novels -- Home Fires Burning, Old Dogs and Children, Dairy Queen Days, Captain Saturday, and The Governor's Lady -- are available on Amazon.com.

The Storyteller Considers Robin Williams

I suppose it is the curse of fiction writers that we are doomed to be amateur psychoanalysts.

Stories – at least the best ones – are about people, and the people who appear in our fictions are made up.  They may be based on or inspired by real people from our own experience, but when we put them in our stories and start getting inside their heads and hearts and souls, we begin the process of invention.  We imagine their internal lives, including the things they try to keep hidden from the world.  We see what they do and hear what they say.  But what they do and say may be in conflict with what is going on inside.  And that conflict is an essential part of any good story.

We talk of our characters having an arc.  They begin here, and during the course of a story confront some kind of dilemma, internal and external, that transforms them in some meaningful way.  And they end up over there.

An example is the central character in my latest novel, The Governor’s Lady.  Cooper Lanier grows up in a political family and comes to despise politics as a thief that robs her of the people she should be able to depend on – especially, her parents.  But through twists of fate, she marries a man who becomes a highly-successful politician, and then becomes one herself.  How does she resolve the internal conflicts, the dilemma, that bring her to such a pass?  That’s the crux of her story.

The Governor's Lady Cover.jpg

If you read the book and Cooper Lanier resonates with you, it is because you can find something of yourself in her.  If I’ve been successful in imagining her, you will feel her joys and sorrows, will agonize with her through her trials and rejoice with her in her triumphs.  I must present her honestly, warts and all, in a way that strikes you as genuine and authentic.

So in the process of imagining and presenting Cooper and my other characters, I have to be something of a shrink.  What they do, say and think has to be believable so you can take a leap of faith with me into a story.  If what I write about a character doesn’t make sense, you won’t make the leap.

I say this is something of a curse, because we fiction writers can’t help psychoanalyzing people – those we know and those we don’t.  And thus I found myself trying to understand the brilliant and troubled mind of Robin Williams in the wake of his tragic passing.

A couple of days after his suicide, I listened to a radio interview from a few years back.  He was a man of a thousand personalities and voices, every one of them both riotously funny and profoundly perceptive of what it means to be human.  After the interview was over, I thought, “How hard must it be to have that many people – most of them zany – inside your head?”

Williams’ good friend Dick Cavett, writing in Time Magazine, said it well: “Can this be good for anyone? Can you be able to do all these rapid-fire personality changes and emerge knowing who you yourself are?”  He remembered Williams coming off stage after a brilliant club performance saying, “Isn’t it funny how I can bring great happiness to all these people, but not to myself.”

Have you ever had a piece of music bouncing around in your head, unable to get rid of it?  Imagine having a thousand pieces of music in there, all going at the same time.  The shrink in me says that was Robin Williams, and that he was desperate to escape from that, to find some peace, and that he finally saw no way out but death.

I came to that way of thinking on my own, before I read Dick Cavett’s article in Time, but we came to the same conclusion.  I never met Williams, but admired him immensely from afar and marveled at the brilliance of his art.  And the psychoanalyst in me can’t help but imagine his great joy and his exquisite pain, and perhaps understand how it finally ended.

Delbert Earle's Window of Opportunity

Late Summer always brings thoughts of a new school year about to begin, and for my friend Delbert Earle, that always brings thoughts of Miz Pirtley.  She was his senior English teacher, and Miz Pirtley’s favorite saying was, “Delbert Earle, if you ever stop acting the fool, you might amount to something.”

Delbert Earle thought he was quite the dude in the Fall of his Senior year.  He was playing halfback on the football team, going steady with a girl so cute she made him blush every time he thought of her, and headed toward graduation.  Well, hoping he was headed toward graduation.

Delbert Earle was the class cut-up, always the center of attention, and something of a practical jokester.  Whenever Miz Pirtley found something in her desk drawer that wasn’t supposed to be there, she knew exactly where it came from.  She found a good many strange things in her desk drawer that Fall, many of them alive and wiggling.

One afternoon, a warm and lazy Indian Summer day begging to be enjoyed, Delbert Earle was standing on top of a desk in study hall, leaning out the window, talking to his girl.  Miz Pirtley passed by in the hall, saw Delbert Earle, and moved faster than anybody had ever seen Miz Pirtley move before.  She grabbed him by the ankles, gave a mighty shove, and threw Delbert Earle clean out the window into a nandina bush.

Then Miz Pirtley got up on the desk and looked out the window at Delbert Earle.

“What did you go and do that for?” he asked, his pride more damaged than his body.  (The worst part was that his girlfriend laughed.  Loudly.)

“Delbert Earle,” Miz Pirtley said sweetly, “I was just acting the fool, and it was too good an opportunity to pass up.”

Delbert Earle turned out all right.  He’s got a good job and a nice family now, pays his taxes, never misses voting in an election, and speaks pretty good English.  He’s acted the fool a few times in his life, as we all have.  But a few times he’s started to and didn’t, and the reason he didn’t was that he thought of Miz Pirtley.

One of these days soon, as Summer becomes Fall, Delbert Earle plans to go by the school and thank Miz Pirtley.  But he plans to stay clear of the windows.

Mountain Men Win The War

Remember studying the Revolutionary War in school?  Paul Revere’s ride, Lexington and Conord, Bunker Hill, Saratoga, Washington crosses the Delaware, the British surrender at Yorktown.  And that was it.

Well, not quite.  While school textbooks focus attention on the war in the New England colonies, a compelling argument can be made that the struggle for American independence was won in the South, in the Carolinas.  And that the pivotal battle in that campaign was fought on a low ridge called Kings Mountain, just below the border between the two Carolinas.  That is the subject of my new play, Liberty Mountain, which premiers this Fall.

In early 1780, the war in New England was at a stalemate.  The British held New York and not much else, and George Washington’s Continentals were unable to force a decisive battle.  The British had grown weary of the war and its drain on the royal treasury and national patience, but King George III was determined to force a victory in the Colonies.  The answer: Go South.

The Carolinas until then had been a backwater in the five-year-old war – a few battles and skirmishes between those loyal to the Crown and those who advocated independence – but nothing on the scale of the New England campaigns.  So the British thought the Carolinas might be ripe for the picking.  The strategy would be to invade and capture Charleston, subdue South Carolina and then its northern neighbor, drive into Virginia, and trap Washington between the southern and northern British forces.

It almost worked.  By May of 1780, Charleston was in British hands, the Continentals had been dealt a crushing defeat at Camden, and the British commander, Lord Cornwallis, reported to London that South Carolina was firmly in his hands.  But the British – brutal and arrogant in victory – were their own worst enemies.  Their Loyalist allies, many of them little more than outlaws, murdered Patriots and their families, burned and looted homes.  A British force massacred Patriot militiamen trying to surrender after a battle in the Waxhaws area.  And suddenly the Carolinas were enraged and up in arms, staging successful guerilla raids and defeating British and Loyalist troops in a series of pitched battles.

Still, Cornwallis persisted in his plan to drive north.  He ordered one of his best officers, Major Patrick Ferguson, to recruit and train a force of a thousand Loyalists, march them into western North Carolina, subdue the area, and protect Cornwallis’s left flank while he captured Charlotte and prepared for the next phase.  Ferguson thought his main threat would be from the area known as the Overmountain Territory, across the Appalachians in what is present-day Eastern Tennessee.  The Overmountain Men were fierce, rugged frontiersmen, staunchly independent, veterans of Indian wars.  Ferguson sent them a message: lay down your arms and swear allegiance to the King, or I will cross the mountains, hang your leaders, and lay waste to your homes.

Gathering of the Overmountain Men by Lloyd Branson

That was a fatal mistake.  The frontiersmen didn’t take to threats.  As depicted in this famous painting by Lloyd Branson, a thousand of them quickly organized and set out on a grueling journey across the mountains, bent on fighting Ferguson.  They were joined by militia units from both Carolinas and on October 7, 1780, they found Ferguson atop Kings Mountain.  Within an hour they had destroyed his militia – hundreds killed (including Ferguson) and wounded, the rest taken captive.  The Patriots lost 28 killed, 58 wounded.

Historians agree that it was a turning point in the Revolution.  Cornwallis retreated, and though there were other battles in the South, he never regained the momentum.  Just over a year later, he surrendered at Yorktown.

Kings Mountain was a battle between Americans.  The only British soldier in the fight was Ferguson.   It was neighbor against neighbor, even brother against brother.  The play, Liberty Mountain, tells the story of the people who settled the Carolinas – mainly hardy Scots-Irish Presbyterians, the lives they carved out of the frontier for themselves and their families, the will and courage they showed in the cause of American independence.

Liberty Mountain takes the stage the first two weekends of October at the Joy Performance Center in Kings Mountain, North Carolina with a cast of more than fifty under the direction of theatre professional Caleb Sigmon. 

The play will become a summer fixture in southern drama.  In the future, the company will stage the play for a month every summer in Kings Mountain, beginning June 26, 2015.

Auditions for the premier production are Monday and Tuesday, July 28 and 29 at the Joy Performance Center.  No theatre experience required, just an interest in re-creating and making history. 

Babies, Elephants and Novels

Paul.jpeg

I’ve been thinking a lot about babies and storytelling since my recent post, “Real Men Change Diapers.”  I applauded my son-in-law David for his hands-on approach to our new grandson and noted that babies are messy little things.  Well, so are books.

Likewise, in my extensive study of pregnant elephants over the years, I have found that they too have some similarities to book writing.  An elephant pregnancy entails a very long gestation period, and when the baby finally arrives, you hope nobody notices that it has long, floppy ears.  Books (at least the kind of fiction I write) take a good while to bring to fruition, and when I finally finish, I hope readers and reviewers will largely ignore the long-floppy-ears aspects of the story.

The Governor's Lady Cover.jpg

A case in point is my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, published last year by John F. Blair Publishers.  The story took ten years to finish.  About six or seven drafts; I lost count.  Readers and reviewers tell me it’s a page-turner, my best yarn yet, so they’re apparently willing to forgive the occasionally floppy ear. 

One reason novels can take a long time to write is that you’re trying to get it right.  Maybe you’ve got your central character pretty much in mind, and you have some notion of where the plot might be headed.  So you start writing.  And then you stop and look over what you’ve written and say, “Nah, that’s not how I imagined it.”  So you re-write, and hopefully you make it better.  What you have to avoid is trying so hard to get the words right that you get in the way of the story.  You try to describe everyone and everything exactly, and you just weigh the whole thing down with words until the story disappears in a sea of verbiage.

The trick, I’ve learned over the course of finishing five novels, is to not try to get it exactly right.  Instead, I’ve learned to trust my readers.  If I put down a few well-chosen words, I’ll engage my readers’ imaginations, and they will complete the picture.  Each reader’s imagination is different, so each reading experience is different.  So if I write a book and a thousand people read it, I’ve really written a thousand different books.  It’s the trust thing that’s important.

What took me so long to finish The Governor’s Lady?  In this case, it wasn’t trying to get it exactly right.  Instead, I violated my own principle of maintaining momentum.  I became a playwright during the ten years – seven plays produced and published and now being performed by theatres across the country.  But writing a play and nurturing it through the production process takes a lot of time and energy.  I kept putting the book aside, and when I’d get back to it, I would have to get it re-booted.  I’ve vowed not to make that mistake again.

A far worse mistake a writer can make is surrendering to failure.  I hear frequently from folks who say, “I’ve got a great idea for a book, but when I sit down to write, it’s so awful I give up.”  Lots of folks never get through that first daunting experience.  They never get to the re-writing-and-making-it-better stage.  There are lots of folks with a great story and an ability to put meaningful words on paper, but only a few who will face that initial failure head-on and spit in its eye.

To get back to the elephant thing, the end result of the writing will have some long, floppy ears.  But if you’ve stayed faithfully with the work, dealt honestly with your characters, and trusted your readers to fill in the blanks, the floppy ears won’t matter much. 

And to get back to the baby thing, the story-writing process involves a lot of feeding, burping, nurturing, and diaper-changing.  Nobody ever said parenthood was easy.

Real Men Change Diapers

I don’t think you can truly appreciate fatherhood unless you get it on you.  Babies are messy little things, and the thing about messes is, they have to be cleaned up.  Later, baby becomes a teenager, and there’s the teenager’s room…but hey, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

I am so proud of my son-in-law David.  Baby Paul Gordon arrived a week ago, and David dived right in.  He’s a hands-on father, and that includes diapers.  He goes about it like he’s been doing it all his life.  There are some things, like nourishment, that David can’t provide; daughter Lee is in charge of that.  But everything else, David is eager to do, and does.  The guy bonding thing is in full bloom, and I predict that it will last a lifetime. 

Fatherhood can be an awkward thing.  For one thing, what precedes fatherhood is mostly out of our hands.  In my novel Old Dogs and Children, my heroine, Bright Birdsong, is pregnant, and husband Fitzhugh is at loose ends.  A wise older woman says to Bright, “He can’t help it.  Biggest thing a man ever do is begat.  Every time a woman get with child, you see the man struttin’ around like a peahen ‘cause he done begat.  Hell, ain’t nothing to begattin’.  It’s after the begattin’ that you gets down to bidness.  And that drive the man near about crazy ‘cause he can’t run the bidness.”

This sort of male displacement often continues after the blessed event.  Our instincts run to hunting and gathering, and after we’ve returned to the cave with what we’ve hunted and gathered, we are prone to kick back by the fire, light a pipe, pop a beer, and sit by as the little woman does the rest, which includes the nurturing stuff.  So when we put aside the pipe and the beer and get fatherhood on us, we’re working against type.  But when we do that, we discover that the rewards are enormous, that being hands-on touches deep and important things in our souls.  Not to speak of what we give the kid.

My own father never had much chance at the messy stuff.  Soon after I was born, he shipped out for Europe and the Big War, so it was just Mom and me and the messy stuff.  The one story I heard from that period was about a 2:00 AM feeding that went awry.  Dad put my bottle in a pan of water on the stove and promptly dozed off, to be awakened by a loud boom when the bottle exploded, leaving the ceiling above the stove dripping with milk and embedded with bottle shards.  Europe may have been a relief for him.  By the time he returned from war, I was well out of diapers and wondering, WHO THE HELL IS THIS STRANGE MAN IN MY HOUSE?  We bonded, but it took awhile.

As for me, I was a diaper changer when our girls came along.  I wasn’t the perfect father – no man is – but along with the hunting and gathering, I tried to contribute to the nurturing part, too.  I got fatherhood on me, and I’m mighty glad I did.

Okay, diaper changing isn’t essential for successful fatherhood.  For one reason or another, a new father may not help with that job.  But hands-on nurturing is.  Touching, holding, loving unconditionally.  Guiding, supporting, caring.  Those are the essentials.  All I have to do to remind myself of that is watch my son-in-law.  David, You the man.

Upon Hanging Georgia O'Keeffe

It’s officially summer at my house.  I know, folks who are sticklers for that sort of thing say it won’t be summer until next week when we pass the Vernal Equinox, the longest day of the year.  But enough of sticklers.  For me, it’s summer because I’ve hung Georgia O’Keeffe.

I’ve long been an admirer of the late Ms. O’Keeffe’s paintings, many of them capturing the objects and forms she found about her in the years she lived and worked in New Mexico.  My favorite is a sunflower – a bold, celebratory eruption of color.  The original hangs in the Cleveland Museum of Art, but we have a poster-sized framed print.  It stays well-protected in the house during the winter months, but in the summer, it hangs on the back porch just above the settee (some would call it a love seat, but I prefer my grandmother’s term, “settee”).  I wake up one morning and realize that the world is finally green and warm, and that’s when I hang Georgia O’Keeffe.  Okay, it’s summer.

To me, there are three phases of summer.  The first is when the sunflower takes its place above the back porch settee.  It ushers in a time of minimal clothing, the smell of mown grass, the blaze of sun and cool of shade.  Summer invites a certain amount of sloth and decadence, and if we don’t slow the hectic pace of our lives to indulge in a bit of that, we have not truly experienced summer.  The sunflower tells me it’s okay to gear back.

The second phase of summer is Vacation Bible School, which follows closely on the heels of Georgia O’Keeffe.  The signs are everywhere on the churches I pass, reminding me of the days of my youth in a small southern town.  Each church had a week of VBS, and the timing was a conspiracy led by our mothers.  No two churches had the same week.  They followed, one after the other, and we kids went to all of them – a week at the Baptist, the next at the Methodist, followed by the Church of Christ.

By the time the first VBS started, we kids were already in the full rowdiness of summer, so having a place our moms could park us where we could enjoy moral instruction and build bird houses was blessed relief for them.  It’s not that we left our rowdiness at the door to the Sunday School building.  I well remember tacking one friend’s pants to his chair while we were in bird house construction.  And I well remember Mrs. Althea Prescott, an imposing school marm and VBS director, saying, “The Lord wants everybody to sit down and shut up.”  We did, but not for long.

The third phase of summer is okra.  There are few smells in the world as rich and fragrant as that of frying okra.  To me, okra is the Queen of Vegetables – elegant without being overbearing.  It is an efficient food: like shrimp, you snip off both ends and eat everything in the middle.  Then too, it is a simple food, perfect for summer.  I dare say you will not find a recipe for okra quiche or okra Rockefeller.  You don’t have to worry about whether to serve white wine or red.  The proper way to serve okra is with iced tea or buttermilk.

My dear wife is a gardener, and this year she has vegetables in abundance.  Tomatoes, squash and cucumbers are beginning to sally forth.  The okra plants look fine and sturdy, and if we can keep the stink bugs at bay, we will have a banner crop.

In another month, the okra will be ready, and then summer will be in full, joyous bloom.  Until then, I enjoy Georgia O’Keeffe, indulge in a certain amount of sloth and decadence, and send up a prayer for the ladies of the church, trying to keep rowdy young’uns under control at Vacation Bible School.

Robert Inman's novels are available through this website and on Amazon's Kindle e-reader.

In Praise of Being Silly

I’ve always been a huge fan of slapstick comedy – the kind where folks fall all over themselves and everything and everyone around them, spreading zany mayhem and making me laugh so hard I have to contemplate a trip to the emergency room.  There was, in my opinion, no one better at slapstick than Buster Keaton, who pratfalled his way through a series of silent films in the 1920’s, performing his own impossible stunts and beginning a lasting comedic legacy.

Buster Keaton

One of my favorite TV shows in the 1950’s was Candid Camera, the brainchild of a man named Allen Funt.  The idea, in case you don’t go back that far, was to hide a camera somewhere, and film people’s reactions to ridiculous stunts and practical jokes.  When the joke was finally revealed, the victim would be told the show’s catchphrase: “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”

My all-time favorite episode starred Buster Keaton.  He’s sitting on a stool at a diner.  Some unsuspecting person takes the stool next to him.  Keaton orders toast and coffee.  He picks up the coffee cup, but only holds onto it by his index finger.  The cup tilts and the coffee pours out onto the plate of toast below.  The guy on the next stool does a huge double-take.  But it gets better.  Keaton puts down the coffee cup, picks up the soggy toast, wrings it out, and puts it back on the plate.  Then he does the coffee spill thing again.  By this time, the guy next door is bug-eyed with astonishment.  The reaction is what the camera is after, but the whole thing works because Keaton does the stunt absolutely deadpan, which was one of his trademarks during his long career.

If laughter is the best medicine, I prescribe sheer silliness, the kind that Buster Keaton and Candid Camera did so well.  And if you want to witness silliness in its purest form, watch a kid being silly.  Up to a certain point in their lives, kids aren’t burdened with the hangups that we adults tote around like peddlers’ sacks.  Their laughter starts deep and bubbles up like a magical fountain of youth and infects everything and everyone around them with uninhibited joy.   On rare occasions, if we’re lucky, we adults stumble upon something that reminds us of what it’s like to laugh just for the pristine sake of laughter.   And I think the best bet we have for doing that is being silly with a kid.

I say all this because I’m about to become a grandfather again.  This time a boy, after two lovely granddaughters.  He will be born into a family with wonderful parents and grandparents who will love and nurture him.  We’ll no doubt shower him with gifts over the years – some tangible, some intangible.  I think one of the best intangibles we can provide is some delicious silliness.

One of the best memories grandson's mother and I have of her own childhood was the day we -- totally without premeditation – draped a sheet of plastic over our heads and ran around the yard.  We weren’t pretending to be anything, we just ran and laughed like maniacs because it made us feel absolutely free and unconnected to anything except the moment.  Someone looking on from the street would have thought we were nuts.  Well, we were, and it was exquisitely good.  We wouldn’t trade that memory for anything.

I’m absolutely sure that grandson's parents will, along with all of the solemn duties and responsibilities of parenthood, take time to be silly with him.  Those will be some of the best moments of his childhood, and theirs.  I know this: his grandfather relishes silliness, and still watches Buster Keaton movies.  I can’t wait.

 

From Tragedy, Art

I’m so glad I discovered Sam Baker.  I heard him interviewed on my favorite National Public Radio show, “Fresh Air,” by my favorite interviewer, Terry Gross.  Sam Baker ‘s life is an riveting story, the centerpiece of which is terrible tragedy that he has used to reshape his life and transform it into songs that touch deep places in our souls.

Sam Baker.jpg

Baker was a vigorous, athletic young man in 1986 – 32 years old, a former football player, a rock climber and whitewater river guide.  He was in Peru on a train bound for Machu Pichu, seated with a German family – husband, wife, 16-year-old son.  He was engrossed in conversation with the teenager when a bomb, planted by terrorists, went off in the luggage rack above them.  The German family were killed, and Baker was horribly injured: brain damage, mangled limbs, blown-in eardrums.  He calls his survival a miracle, and 17 reconstructive surgeries later, he is a singer-songwriter of uncommon grace and poetic beauty.  Many of his songs reflect on that horrific day on the train, but there is nothing in them of self-pity or unreconciled darkness.

Sam Baker has a new album, his fourth, Say Grace.  Rolling Stone magazine called it one of the top 10 country albums of 2013, but there is nothing of the rock-influenced pickup-truck, woman-done-me-wrong, hard-drinking stuff I think of these days as country.  Baker’s songs are things of gentle beauty, things of the soul of a man who has been to the brink, survived, and – instead of giving up – opens his heart for the rest of us.  iTunes says, “Baker informs his songs with a sense of life’s fragility, as well as gratitude for small everyday miracles.”  Baker himself is a pretty big miracle, but he takes joy and sustenance from the small ones he sees around him.  There is a sadness to some of them, but a reflective sadness that sees beyond itself.

My favorite song on the album is the last one, “Go In Peace.”  It is full of wonderment, hope, and benediction.  I hope Mr. Baker won’t mind me quoting from it:

Go in peace, go in kindness, go in love, go in faith.  Let us go into the darkness, not afraid, not alone.  Let us hope by some good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.

I take from that a sense that Sam Baker has gone in peace, arrived at home, and found that it is in his own heart.  He has made peace with life as he knows it, healed at the broken places, and is profoundly aware that it has given him a gift to share.

Sam Baker has turned tragedy into art, and I think a great deal of art is born of tragedy.  Artists of all stripes pour out their hearts -- in music, painting, sculpture, stories-- and find some measure of solace and strength in the doing,  a way of dealing with inner demons.  Winston Churchill painted, calling it a refuge from the severe bouts of depression, “the black dog,” that sometimes overwhelmed him.  Had he not painted, would he have been the monumental figure who led his nation through the dark agony of war?  Maybe not.

Van Gogh.jpg

Sometimes, even art can’t suffice.  Vincent Van Gogh, that giant of post-impressionism, died in1890, age 37, from what’s believed to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound after a lifetime of anxiety and mental illness.  Of his 2,100 works of art, some of the best came during the last two years of his life.  A struggle against madness by a genius who left behind incredible art, but failed to save himself.

Sam Baker lived through tragedy, came to terms with it through his art, and when he is finally done, will leave us with those things he celebrates in song – peace, kindness, love, faith.

When you get a chance, listen to some Sam Baker music.  And go in peace.  

The Slow Death of Reading

When our daughters were very small, we sat them in our laps and started reading.  A captive audience, to be sure, but we found before long that we were the captives in one of the most treasured times we had with them.

Parent Child Reading.jpg

Our favorite book in those early years was The Three Little Kittens.   You probably know the lilting rhyme by heart: “The Three Little Kittens, they Lost Their Mittens…”  We read that one book over and over and over.  The girls loved to hear it read and would often bring it to us, ready to settle in.  They soon learned the text by heart.  Paulette and I would occasionally change a word, just for fun.  “The Three Little Kittens, they Lost Their Asparagus…”  “No, no!” the girls would cry, “it’s MITTENS!  Silly Daddy.”

Of course, we soon graduated to a much broader variety of books, but we kept coming back to Kitten Trio until the book literally fell apart.  It was not until years later that we saw the famous quote from award-winning children’s author Emilie Buchwald:

I’ve been thinking about all that as I hear more and more alarming news about reading (or rather, lack of it) in our modern world. 

The Washington Post reports on new studies by neuroscientists about how our brains process information.  Researchers are finding that we spend an increasing amount of time (five hours a day and climbing) on electronic devices – smart phones, laptops, I-pads, etc. – and that we are mostly skimming and scanning, rushing through text to find something that catches our interest.  Conversely, we are spending less and less time with more in-depth reading:  books, and the sort.  We are re-wiring our brains to dash pell-mell through the torrent of online information.  We cover more ground, but we absorb less.  We see it, but we don’t really get it.  Comprehension, it turns out, seems better when we read from paper. 

This is especially true for children, whose brains are developing patterns that will last a lifetime.  They are drawn to adults’ electronic devices and they learn to skim and scan.  Deep reading skills don’t get the nurturing they need.  From books.

There’s more bad news from a couple of other recent surveys:

33% of high school graduates never read another book the rest of their lives.

42% of college graduates never read another book after college.

80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.

In 1984, only 8% of 13-year-olds said they hardly ever or never read for pleasure; today, 22% of 13-year-olds say that.

That’s all depressing news.  We live in a complex, fast-moving world and the problems we have to tackle, and hopefully solve, require deep, creative thought.  We adults are passing those problems on to new generations, but we’re not giving them the tools they need – comprehension, reason, the ability to make sense of complicated ideas.  They won’t find the answers flipping madly through e-mails and social media.  Those may be good tools, but they aren’t the essential ones.

If I had one wish for parents, it would be that we would read – a lot – to our children, and start as soon as they’re able to hold their heads up.  My mother did that for me, and gave me the gift of a fertile imagination, which has served me richly in a long love affair with words.

If there’s a kid near you – your own or someone else’s – grab the kid and a book, snuggle up, and start reading.  That’s true for parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, even older siblings.  Kids are mimics, and when we read to them, we let them know that reading is important and rewarding.  Once that sinks in, they’re hooked, and they can’t wait to learn to read themselves.  If you can find one, I suggest a copy of The Three Little Kittens to start with.  The asparagus thing, that’s optional.

In Praise of Procrastination

In a recent article for The American Scholar magazine, the very fine novelist David Guterson recalled his first college creative writing class.  His teacher, Jack Brenner, gave the class a piece of advice that has stuck with Guterson during his distinguished career: JUST PLUNGE IN.  Don’t worry about whether you’re prepared for whatever writing project is on your front burner.  Don’t be afraid of writing badly, of failure.  Just plunge in.

I agree, and share that advice often with people who tell me they have a great idea for a book, a story, a movie, whatever.  Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and do the work.  Talkers talk, writers write.  My own college writing teacher had a similar piece of advice.  His term was, “Just blast it.”  Put something down, no matter how much you cringe when you read what you’ve written, and then go back and make it better.

However, there is also something to be said for procrastination, which flies in the face of what we’ve been told from infancy about getting along in life.  “Don’t put off ‘til tomorrow what you can do today,” our parents admonished.  In school, in work, in life, we face deadlines.  Sporting events have rigid time constraints.  The shot clock is ticking.  Golfers are penalized for slow play.  Pit stops are timed down to the last chaotic millisecond.  We are all in a race, and those who slow down are doomed.

But wait.  How about the story of the tortoise and the hare?  Who won that one?  The slow and steady guy, who just kept plodding along at his own sweet pace, smelling the roses and enjoying the scenery.  I like to think he paused periodically to just contemplate the journey.  He not only finished first, he no doubt lived a lot longer than the hare and enjoyed it more.

For me, writing is like that.  I work at the business, putting in my daily time, aiming for a reasonable output of words.  I admire those folks who can spend eight hours a day at their writing, but I’m not one of them.  When I’ve met my daily goal, I need to get up and go do something else, something unconnected with the work.  But if I’ve got a good yarn going, the characters and their story are always with me.  When I’m away from the actual writing, the story is marinating.  And often, at odd moments, something from the story speaks to me in a serendipitous way, something I can use the next time I sit down at the computer.  I call it creative procrastination.

Maybe the best piece of advice came from Fred Rodgers.  When our daughter Lee was small, she watched Mister Rodgers’ TV show every day.  One day when we were getting ready to go somewhere, we told Lee to hurry up.  She put her hands on her hips and said, “Mister Rodgers told me to take my time.”  I try to remember that.

We probably all need to rush less and marinate more.  No telling what we might discover along the way that we would have otherwise missed.  Like the tortoise.

It's Festival Time!

It’s Spring, and that means a raft of literary festivals, especially in the South.  At last count, I noted eleven in this part of the country.  Every state worth its name seems to have one – some as short as one day, some lasting several – in which writers and readers are brought together in joyous celebrations of the written word.

I’ll be involved in two during the month of April.

On Saturday, April 19, it’s the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery.  It’s a day-long affair featuring author presentations, workshops, book signings, food, music, and schmoozing.  More than 50 authors, all with Alabama connections, will be there to share our work and enjoy the interaction with readers.  alabamabookfestival.org  

Then Thursday – Saturday, April 24-26, it’s the Alabama Writers Symposium in Monroeville, home of Harper Lee, author of one of the two truly iconic books in American fiction, To Kill A Mockingbird (the other being Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn).  The Symposium honors an outstanding author and literary scholar each year, and this year the awards go to two longtime friends and truly gifted writers – novelist and screenwriter Mark Childress and historian Wayne Flynt.  www.facebook.com/pages/Alabama-Writers-Symposium/

Writing, as I’ve said many times before, is lonely, painful work – an individual sport.  We scribblers spend hours, days, years behind closed doors battling demons, writers’ blocks, and infected paper cuts.  Then at some point we stagger out into the light of day clutching dog-eared stacks of paper and proclaim, “I just wrote THE END.”  At this point, as I tell aspiring writers, art meets commerce.  Writer meets reader.  To have a reader express an interest in what you’ve just toiled over so mightily is the payoff.  When organizers of a literary festival bring tons of readers together to express interest, that’s as good as it gets.

When writers gather, we talk shop: who’s written what, which agents are hot, who’s got the latest mega book deal; and we commiserate over the profound changes, for good and evil, that are taking place in the book business.  We swap tales over manuscripts rejected, e-books launched, the pleasures and perils of marketing.  The art/commerce thing.

But more importantly, we congratulate each other over having written, and we rejoice in the opportunity to look our readers in the eye and thank them for their encouragement and support.  It’s a love fest.

And for readers, it’s a chance to meet, see, hear, touch the poor souls who labored so long and hard to bring forth works of poetry, fiction, memoir, history – all of the written things that entertain, inform, educate, and even disturb.

If you love good writing and reading, seek out a literary festival near you and go.  You’ll find yourself among folks of like mind, you’ll have fun, and you’ll make a bunch of deserving writers mighty happy.

Imagination In A Jar

My friend Andrew posted this photo of his son Sean on Facebook the other day, and it got me to thinking about Raggedy Ann and Andy.  Or more to the point, kids and imagination.

When our daughters were small, they loved stuffed things – dolls, animals, the like.  Our older one had an entire menagerie that we referred to collectively as “the friends,” and when we took a trip, the friends had to go along.  They were simply part of the family, and for our daughter, they were a little community of bonny companions with whom she played and talked.  She endowed each of them with a personality that came right out of her imagination.

Our younger daughter likewise had a bevy of stuffed friends, and for her, they often made up a classroom.  She liked nothing better than to arrange the friends in front of a chalkboard and teach school to them.  Her lesson plans were quite involved, and ranged across the firmament of subjects the daughter was herself learning in school.

For both kids, the menagerie included Raggedy Ann and Andy.  I figured out that the best thing about Ann and Andy was, they didn’t do anything.  And therefore they could do anything.  Ann and Andy didn’t cry, burp, close their eyes, or say “Mama.”  Our girls had dolls that did those sorts of things, but they weren’t much interested in them.  Ann and Andy, though, could be, do, or say anything that the girls’ imaginations could conjure up.  The possibilities were limitless.  I think the same thing applies to Sean and his jar.  He can imagine the jar being full of anything or nothing, or being just a jar, or something entirely different.

Lots of toys these days do lots of things.  You wind them up or put in batteries and turn them on or switch on the remote, and then you sit and watch them do whatever they do.  And that’s it.  They are what they are.  But if you’re a kid (or an adult, for that matter) with imagination, they can become much more.  And maybe, the less they do, the more they can become.

Kids are born with a vast capacity for imagination, plopped down in a world that’s strange and fascinating and laden with possibilities.  There are all sorts of ways to cultivate imagination, and the best one is reading.  It starts with the kid being held and cuddled by someone older, feeling safe and warm and hearing the comforting rise and fall of a familiar voice.  The child associates that good feeling with whatever reading material is being held in the older person’s hands, full of pictures and little black things that squiggle across the page.  At some point, as language develops, the child begins to realize that the pictures and squiggles are telling a story, setting off more pictures in the child’s mind.  And once that happens, the kid is hooked.  Imagination, I tell young people, is what you see when your eyes are closed.  You might be looking at what’s on the page, but what you’re really seeing is that movie reel going on inside.

When a child’s imagination is nurtured and set free, good things happen.  Kids with imagination do well in school and grow up to be people who solve problems because they can envision how things can be better.  For a kid with imagination, a toy is just a receptacle for possibility, and the sophistication of the toy doesn’t matter so much.  Raggedy Ann and Andy will do just fine.  Or just a jar.

Well, It's About Time

Clock.jpg

My dear wife is complaining about Daylight Saving Time.  She heard some fellow on NPR who has written a book that says DST is mostly hogwash, that we really don’t save any energy, and that all this fussing about with our clocks disrupts business affairs and sleep patterns.  My wife’s main complaint, and it’s a legitimate one, is that kids have to wait for school buses in the dark, and that can be dangerous.  For my part, I like having that extra hour of daylight in the late afternoon when I can enjoy outdoor sports, yard work, and other useless activities.

The idea of making the most of the day has been around for a long time.  My favorite American, Benjamin Franklin, famously said, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  While living in Paris in 1784, he anonymously penned a satire in which he suggested taxing shutters, rationing candles, and waking the public by ringing church bells and firing cannons at sunrise.  Get those lazy Parisians out of bed and on to their labors.  None of Ben’s suggestions were followed, and thus  Parisians did not become healthier, wealthier, or wiser.

The first person to propose Daylight Saving Time was the New Zealand entomologist G.V. Hudson in 1895.  He wanted more daylight hours to collect bugs.  His proposal fell on deaf ears.  Then the British businessman William Willett brought up the idea again in 1907.  He was an avid golfer, and wanted more daylight hours to pursue that nonsense.  His idea also came to naught.  It took the Germans and their allies in 1916 to actually do the clock shift thing as a means of saving coal during wartime.  Well, we know who lost that war.

“Fast time,” as it’s sometimes called, has always been surrounded by controversy.  I was a young reporter in Montgomery in the early 60’s when that august body, the Alabama Legislature, debated whether to put the state on DST.  The Alabama Farm Bureau was staunchly opposed to the idea.  I interviewed a spokesman for the Farm Bureau who explained with a straight face, “We believe it will confuse the farm animals.”  I was too stunned to ask the obvious follow-up question, having to do with clocks in barns, etc.  The Legislature, despite the Farm Bureau’s opposition, approved the idea.

My grandmother, Nell Cooper, had a simple solution to the confusion surrounding the clock shifting.  In the winter months, she arose from her bed at 7:00am.  During the months of DST, she slept until 8:00.  She had it in her mind that she gained (or lost, I never quite figured which) an hour every day.  Some of the members of the family tried to explain it to her, to no avail.  Nell Cooper always had a healthy attitude toward time, which is probably why she lived to be 94 and said, on her deathbed, “I’ve give out, but I haven’t give up.”

My wife’s protestations to the contrary, most of us are now on Daylight Saving Time.  The neighborhood kids are waiting for the school bus with flashlights in hand and I’m puttering about my yard at 7:00 in the evening.  But I’m also considering laying abed until 8:00 each morning.  Maybe Nell Cooper had it right.

 

Delbert Earle and the Sound of Spring

Oh ye who are weary of Winter, take heart.  It’s Spring already!

Or, at least it is in Glendale, Arizona where the Los Angeles  Dodgers have started Spring Training.  Pitchers and catchers reported February 8, and the full roster encamped last week.  The Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks (the only other team now in Spring Training) will open the major league season March 22 in Australia.  My friend Delbert Earle believes that one or both will try to sign a kangaroo as a base runner.

Dodgers.jpg

Spring is that time when the earth awakens and flowers, never more so than in the souls of baseball fans.  If you are a fan worthy of the name, Spring is the time when you believe that your favorite team’s best pitcher will win 25 games in the coming season, the cleanup batter will hit .400, and some guy who has been laboring in obscurity in the minors will be called up to the big team and hit 50 home runs.

Baseball, of course, is a sport that never quite goes away.  When they’re not actually playing baseball, they give out awards and trade players and sign insanely mega-buck contracts.  But it’s not really baseball season until the weather turns warm, as it has in Glendale.  When the crack of the bat is heard in Glendale, Winter is truly over.

I say crack of the bat in deference to my friend Delbert Earle, who is a Dodger fan worthy of the name.  Delbert Earle is of the old school that believes that real baseball is only played with bats that crack.  He has no truck with bats that clank.  As in aluminum.

Delbert Earle deeply regrets that in our schools and colleges, they play baseball with aluminum bats.  His boy Elrod plays high school baseball after a fashion, and like any good father, he goes to the games.  But he winces every time he hears a clank.  He is about aluminum bats as he is about cars with diesel engines.  Delbert Earle has a hard time listening to an engine that sounds like it has termites.  I have tried to tell him that modern diesel engines are quiet, but he says I’m just not listening hard enough for the termites.

Delbert Earle hopes they don’t have many diesel cars in Glendale, Arizona, where he plans to retire one of these days.  He wants a small bungalow in Glendale, preferably within walking distance of the Dodgers’ Spring Training site.  He hopes Elrod will come to visit every Spring to hear what real baseball sounds like.

Delbert Earle vows to be a purist in his old age.  He doesn’t even plan to drink soda pop from aluminum cans.  Beer?  Well, maybe.